Revitalized Thomsen, Cavs welcome Huskies
After uneven regular season, left back has recaptured starting role
As a freshman in 2012, Virginia defender Scott Thomsen started every one of the Cavaliers’ 21 matches and finished with a team-high eight assists and 1,991 minutes played. The Brick, N.J. native set up the most Virginia scores since Nico Colaluca’s 10-assist campaign in 2006 and was on the passing end of five game-winning goals.
In his sophomore campaign, however, Thomsen’s in-game impact on the No. 9 Virginia men’s soccer team has been as sporadic as his up-and-down playing-time. The left back started Virginia’s first seven games but then assumed a reserve role when freshman midfielder Patrick Foss broke into the starting corps Sept. 28 against Syracuse. By the ACC Tournament, Thomsen was all but out of the Cavaliers’ rotation. He mustered a grand total of 13 minutes in three games.
But as Virginia (12-5-5, 4-3-4 ACC) braces for No. 10 Connecticut this Friday at Klöckner Stadium, a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s College Cup on the line, a rejuvenated Thomsen represents one of the Cavaliers’ best hopes for securing a trophy-raising end to 2013. The defender is back in coach George Gelnovatch’s lineup and, after scoring the first of Virginia’s three goals in a Round of 16 win against No. 11 Marquette, is feeling good.
“As a soccer player, whatever role your coach gives you, [you] just take it and run with it,” Thomsen said. “I’m just trying to keep myself focused and keep working in training, and when I’ve gotten the opportunity, I’ve been able to do pretty well.”
The battle between Thomsen and Foss for minutes at the left back position reflects Virginia’s impressive depth. The Cavalier coaching staff preaches tenacity in training sessions, and the Virginia players know they can work their way up the depth chart by playing strongly on the days between games. Even with the Cavaliers nearing the end of the season, the starting lineup remains volatile.
“[Scott] has been competing in a very positive way with Patty Foss, as Patty was competing with him when Scottie was starting,” Gelnovatch said. “I think when you have guys that are competing for positions in a healthy manner, you know, I think it makes your team better. And Patty’s still competing with Scottie for that position.”
For the time being, Thomsen appears to have seized the starting spot at left back. He swung both the Marquette (13-6-2, 6-2-1 Big East) and St. John’s Tournament tilts in the Cavaliers’ favor, scoring Virginia’s first goal against the Golden Eagles to help overcome junior defender Matt Brown’s first minute red card and setting up junior forward Eric Bird’s 64th minute strike against the Red Storm (11-7-2, 3-4-2 Big East).
Now, Thomsen and Virginia must overcome one of the nation’s hottest teams to reach the semifinals. The Huskies (12-2-8, 4-0-4 American Athletic Conference) are in the midst of a 17-match unbeaten streak and survived an early 2-0 deficit this past Sunday to tie the game and advance against top-seeded UCLA on penalty kicks. UConn boasts a physically-gifted lineup that the Cavaliers will be hard-pressed to shut down.
“We’ve got to make sure that the game doesn’t turn into a game that’s all about strength and athleticism,” Gelnovatch said. “We’ve got to put our passes together. We’ve got to keep our share of possession. We’ve got to make sure we keep in particular their number 10, who’s their leading goal-scorer, in front of us.”
Number 10 is freshman midfielder Cyle Larin, the Huskies’ leader in goals (14) and shots (93). Larin has netted five game-winning goals this year, but he is far from UConn’s sole offensive threat. Senior forward Mamadou Diouf put the Huskies ahead to stay in a first round win against Quinnipiac, and though he has scored only two goals in 2013 — one year after finishing sixth in all of Division I with 15 tallies — both have come in the Tournament. Then there’s 10-assist junior Adria Beso, the American Athletic Conference Midfielder of the Year, who plays the facilitator role in which Thomsen thrived as a freshman.
UConn’s ace in the hole, however, is junior goalkeeper Andre Blake. The net-minder won Big East Goalkeeper of the Year in his freshman and sophomore seasons and took home the American Athletic Conference’s version of the award this season. Blake relishes pressure-packed situations. He registered two saves in PK shootouts against both UCLA (12-3-5, 6-1-3 Pac-12) and No. 16 seed UMBC, whom the Huskies edged in the Tournament’s second round.
On paper, Virginia possesses the varied firepower to test Blake. The Cavaliers — with 13 goal-scorers in 2013 — can roll out player after player capable of depositing the ball in the back of the net.
“Coming into the season, scoring goals was a concern, you know, and the team has turned into a team that’s actually good at scoring goals,” Gelnovatch said. “I feel like that’s a strength of ours. It’s not one guy or even two guys. It’s a team that’s capable of scoring from a lot of different places in a lot of different ways.”
Friday’s game will be Virginia’s last at Klöckner Stadium, win or lose. Should the Cavaliers defeat the Huskies, they will travel to Philadelphia’s PPL Park, home of MLS’ Philadelphia Union, for a Dec. 13 semifinal against either No. 4 Maryland or No. 5 California. A loss, and it’s home for the holidays.
“[This team has] developed a real mental toughness and a real will to win about them,” Gelnovatch said. “And, again, it’s not something that this time of year that just happens. It’s something that you develop. As coaches, we try to kind of foster it … But the players have been really, really good in that regard.”